PROPERTY FROM A CALIFORNIA PRIVATE COLLECTION
The present head is a new addition to a well-defined group of sculptures in pink granite, all around or a little over life-size, depicting a king with false beard and, where preserved, a nemes headdress. These are unremarkable accoutrements for royal representations, but where the group is unique is in the king’s features. A snub nose and plump, pursed, slightly downturned lips with a fold stretching down towards the chin are recognizable traits. Yet more striking is the treatment of the eyes in this group. Instead of the usual long extended eyebrow and cosmetic line characteristic of representations of kings, these heads have a more naturally treated eyebrow, sardonically arched with a pointed outer end. Below it, the upper eyelid is depicted folding over the lower one at the outer edge of the eye, a neat stylization of slack, aged flesh’s fight against gravity.
The group of heads like this is small. Besides the present lot they include Cincinnati 1945.63 (https://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/asset-viewer/fragmentary-head-of-a-king/2gEiF9nBFLV0uQ?projectId=art-project), Edinburgh, National Scottish Museum 1910.81 (http://blog.nms.ac.uk/app/uploads/2012/11/tutankhamun-heads.jpg), and Metropolitan Museum 1923.3.170 (http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/544529?=&imgno=0&tabname=online-resources). The Cincinnati and Edinburgh heads were both acquired on the art market, and have no archaeological findspot. The Metropolitan head was excavated at the funerary temple of the Eighteenth Dynasty ruler Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri on the west bank at Thebes, but lacks a more definite context within this famously jumbled site.
For a long time assigning dates to the heads proved difficult: their distinctive features hinted at the Amarna period, but have few precise links to sculpture from that period. The Metropolitan head was for a long time tentatively identified as Tutankhamun. As Tutankhamun died aged around eighteen, this attribution ignores the head’s carefully depicted signs of age.
W. Raymond Johnson was the first scholar to identify the Metropolitan head as Amenhotep III (cited in Pharaohs of the Sun, cat. No. 13). He linked the Met head to a slightly over life-size head, made of black granodiorite, which probably joins one of two torsos inscribed for Amenhotep III and mentioning the heb sed, a festival held in a king’s thirtieth regnal year and at intervals afterwards to rejuvenate him (Cairo JE 59880 Torsos JE 33900-1 – Pharaohs of the Sun cats. 11-12). This battered head also displays similar treatment of mouth and eyes to the pink granite group.
The attribution of the anonymous heads to Amenhotep III has been proven beyond doubt in the last five years by excavations at Kom el-Hettan, Amenhotep’s enormous funerary temple on the west bank at Thebes. Amenhotep stuffed his funerary temple with statues, including a pair of 21m-high seated figures at the first pylon, known since the classical period as the Colossi of Memnon. Within the temple enclosure behind the Colossi stood somewhere close to a thousand statues of the king and his gods, including over seven hundred seated and standing figures of the lion-headed goddess Sekhmet, now scattered throughout sites in Egypt and museums and collections worldwide. Recent excavations at the site by Hourig Sourouzian and Rainer Stadelmann, and also by Zahi Hawass at the north west corner of the site, have uncovered three representations of the king – so far – with similar features. All three are made from pink granite, and show the king with the nemes. One is just a head, but two are more complete, and show the king seated with a deity on his left.
One of the deities is now headless, but the other dyad shows Amenhotep next to a falcon-headed deity. The faces of both king and deity have been carved into veins of black granodiorite that must have been deliberately exploited by a master sculptor to highlight king and deity. It seems likely that the present head, and the Cincinnati, Edinburgh, and Met heads, were made for installation alongside the dyads at Kom el-Hettan. Amenhotep’s statues were easy targets for later kings looking to equip their shrines, and the statue from which the Met head comes may have been moved to a later king’s temple nearer Deir el-Bahri where it was later excavated.
The mention of one of Amenhotep III’s sed festivals on the Cairo head allows the heads to be dated to somewhere in the last eight years of his reign, a period that saw Amenhotep deify himself as the ‘dazzling sun-disc’ and quicken the pace of his building campaigns throughout Egypt. Raymond Johnson identified a ‘deification’ style from Amenhotep’s first sed festival in year 30, showing him with exaggeratedly chubby, childlike features and enormous almond-shaped eyes. The group discussed here, showing an aged, mature king with almost weary eyes, could not be further in mood from the ‘deification’ style. Did Amenhotep choose a different style for his second or third sed festivals? One piece of evidence suggests that he did: the small but powerful head of his Queen Tiye, discovered in the temple of Hathor at Serabit el-Khadim in the far-off Sinai (Cairo JE 38257). Like the present group of heads, Tiye has a slightly drooping eyelid and a firmly set mouth. Tiye can be firmly dated to year 36, when an expedition was sent to Sinai to mine turquoise for Amenhotep’s third sed festival the following year. The temptation to link the granite heads, with their similarly frank expressions, to Tiye and the third sed festival is strong.
The heads can be approached from another direction. The weary mouths and eyes of the group present similarities to images from the reign of Amenhotep III’s successor Akhenaten, who may have ruled as co-regent with Amenhotep for up to twelve years. W. Raymond Johnson oulined similarities between Amenhotep’s ‘deification’ style and the exaggerated early images of Akhenaten, which would have been created simultaneously under a twelve year co-regency. Similarly, images from the last few years of Amenhotep’s reign, like these, would be co-eval with images from years 10-12 of Akhenaten – a time when Akhenaten’s representations become more sober and based on natural observation, just as Amenhotep’s representations change. W. Raymond Johnson suggests that the four heads discussed here may have come not from Kom el-Hettan but from Tell el-Amarna, where Queen Tiye is known to have had a sunshade temple equipped with statues of her and Amenhotep III. The group could thus have been made at Amarna towards the end of a twelve year co-regency, although how the Metropolitan head subsequently made it from Amarna to Deir el-Bahri is unexplained.
Given the Egyptians’ mastery of style, purpose, and craft, however, it is clear that traditional assumptions that style must be defined solely by location, date, or material should be put aside. The same workshops that produced the Sinai Queen Tiye also produced blandly exaggerated private sculpture in the same commission, switching from one style to another. Styles could be invented, retired, modified, or revived depending on the roles the commission was intended to play. The question posed by this group of sculptures remains open.
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